Is this the man in America turning the Ukraine war for Vladimir Putin?

Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, could have a decisive impact on the Republican nomination and the race for the White House in 2024
Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, could have a decisive impact on the Republican nomination and the race for the White House in 2024

"Ukraine is not a democracy," Tucker Carlson told viewers tuning into his Fox News show in late February, 2022 as Russian tanks rolled towards the Ukrainian border. "It’s a colony with a puppet regime essentially managed by the US State Department."

It is not clear if the popular television host had tuned into President Vladimir Putin’s national address a day earlier, but the talking points were near-identical.

Since Russia's invasion, Mr Carlson has advocated forcefully for the dismantling of Nato and repeatedly amplified Kremlin messaging to his some three million viewers, earning him the nickname “Putin’s parrot”.

He used his position on Fox this week to ask the two most likely US presidential nominees - Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis - to articulate their fealty to his view of the conflict.

Florida governor and presumptive 2024 challenger, Mr DeSantis, who had largely kept quiet his opinion on the Russian invasion, surprised voters on Mr Carlson’s show by agreeing with him.

"While the US has many vital national interests (...) becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them," the governor told a visibly gleeful Mr Carlson.

Mr Carlson with Mr Trump last summer - AP
Mr Carlson with Mr Trump last summer - AP

The bow-tie-wearing, controversy-seeking host of the highest-rated cable news program on primetime television has been described by Time magazine as the most powerful conservative in America.

“He doesn’t react to the agenda, he drives the agenda,” described one GOP strategist, who suggested Mr Carlson has managed to hold an entire party hostage to his Trumpian brand of politics.

“Tucker Carlson has the power to command a leader in a potential 2024 matchup to take a certain position that he knows is unpopular broadly because he's trying to win a very narrow slice of the American Republican electorate,” Reed Galen, co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a political action committee made up of former and current moderate Republicans, told The Telegraph.

The insinuation being that the Florida governor was only looking to appease Mr Carlson’s viewers and throw red meat to Mr Trump’s base.

“I think it says a lot,” Mr Galen said.

At Fox, Carlson gained a platform to air grievances

Swiss boarding school-educated Mr Carlson, 53, had a long career in Left and Right-wing media, appearing in the New York Times Magazine and on CNN (where he ironically once pleaded with journalists to focus on reporting rather than punditry) before setting up the successful conservative political news site the Daily Caller.

But it was on Fox he made his name.

Mr Carlson gave a platform to theories and opinions that would otherwise be confined to Facebook groups and 4Chan message boards, tapping into grievances held by certain subsections of society.

He has used his show to sow doubt and suspicion around immigrants, Black Lives Matter protesters and Covid-19 vaccines. More recently he has taken on culture war issues - attacking the “woke” manufacturers of M&Ms chocolate and blaming the fall of Silicon Valley Bank on the Obama administration’s diversity drive in the financial sector.

Tuckerism is ultimately about resisting a group of Washington elites - whether it be Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton - that is “brainwashing” the masses.

“He knows that he has an audience that he has to keep ramped up, on a consistent dopamine hit,” offered Mr Galen, a political strategist who has worked on four election campaigns. Bosses at Fox made note of the seemingly ratings-winning formula.

Carlson clips reposted on Wagner militia channels

Mr Carlson’s commentary on the Ukraine war, meanwhile, generally aligns with the Putin playbook.

He has variously claimed that Ukraine is “not a democracy”, that the US was responsible for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline explosion, and asked viewers “how would the US behave if such a situation developed in neighbouring Mexico or Canada?” in clips that have then been used in Russian state propaganda and reposted on Wagner militia media channels.

Russian television points to them as evidence that Putin is right because the same is being said by “the most popular television presenter in America”.

Mr Carlson rewards political candidates who agree with his stance airtime on his show, and has already made clear his dislike of 2024 Trump rival Nikki Haley, dismissing her as a “neocon” for backing US aid to Ukraine.

Pollsters say they actually record drops in support among would-be Republican voters for more mainstream candidates, like former UN ambassador Ms Haley, after they become targets on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

He has been praised in some corners for bravery in speaking his mind. But a recent lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox for its coverage of the 2020 election revealed a certain cynicism on his part.

On screen, Mr Carlson is Mr Trump’s biggest cheerleader. However, private messages submitted as evidence in the suit suggest a deep disdain.

“I hate him passionately,” read one text sent by the TV host to a colleague during the former president’s final days in office. “What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that.”

While Mr Carlson might view Mr Trump as personally insufferable, he ultimately sees too much to gain from backing his populist Right-wing nationalism.

‘Even Murdoch can’t touch him’

The Dominion lawsuit also revealed the reach of Mr Carlson’s influence. Various texts and emails sent between Fox staff show Mr Carlson’s immense popularity among viewers has allowed him to fend off his critics in - and outside - the network.

Mr Carlson exerts so much power that even the Murdochs have to dance around it, Bill Grueskin, a faculty professor at Columbia Journalism School, said. “Rupert Murdoch may be the smartest media person in the world, but you can’t fix this problem they’ve created for themselves," he told The Guardian.

In essence he has become untouchable. “If you touch Tucker, you’ll just be seen succumbing to the radical Left” he rails against.

Mr Carlson has become a huge asset and a problem for Fox News and Rupert Murdoch - REUTERS
Mr Carlson has become a huge asset and a problem for Fox News and Rupert Murdoch - REUTERS

But what does Mr Carlson’s stranglehold over the GOP spell for its future?

With both its main 2024 candidates dissenting from current US policy in Ukraine, a major faction within the party is now breaking with Washington's bipartisan consensus.

While mainstream Republicans continue to chide the position held by Mr Trump and now Mr DeSantis - who boast about seven in 10 GOP votes between them - there are signs it is an ascendant one.

Some of the more extreme voices in the party who share Mr DeSantis’ view, including Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, are regulars on Mr Carlson’s segments on Russia.

Mr Galen foresees broad conservative support for Kyiv waning by next spring, when the election battle really shifts into gear.

“I think it’s possible the winds could change in that direction,” he told The Telegraph. “It’s quite something to see the power that Tucker Carlson had amassed. I don't wanna call it amazing, but it’s interesting and certainly concerning.”